Unbound C Program Notes

By Cheryl A. Ossola

Frances Chung rehearsing Welch’s Bespoke // © Erik Tomasson
STANTON WELCH’S BESPOKE

In Stanton Welch’s new ballet, expressions of love and gestures of caring abound. This piece, his sixth for San Francisco Ballet, is indeed about love, but it’s not about romance. Instead, Welch explores the love of dancers for their art form—the technique of ballet, the artistry, the rush of live performance. It’s an intense relationship, and one that’s all too fleeting.

That intensity, and the brevity of a dance career, occupy Welch’s thoughts quite often these days. “It’s a deep love dancers have with ballet,” says Welch, artistic director of Houston Ballet. “I don’t think many professions have that commitment, where you love it and when you’re around 30 to 40, it leaves you. And you know it going in, and that’s difficult.” For a long time after he retired from the stage, Welch reassured himself that he could still dance if he chose to. With the realization that those days are now behind him, he found himself wistful, longing to turn back the clock. And so clock imagery, the idea of time passing, persists throughout this ballet.

The piece begins with a solo man moving in silence. Welch hadn’t planned to start the ballet that way, but the idea came to him as he worked with Principal Dancer Angelo Greco, whom he describes as “hypnotic. He’s young and he’s fearless. He’s exactly what we should be when we first fall in love with ballet.” In the first movement, the dancers are “vital and alive,” Welch says, “with stellar technique—a truth that’s gloriously apparent in the opening moments of silence.

Along with demonstrating brilliant technique, the brief solo introduces some of the movement motifs that characterize this ballet. One is the “ticking” of straight arms, hands flattened and perpendicular to the floor; they snap into place, replicating the movement of a clock’s second hand. One dancer begins this movement, and the others join in—no one is spared the marking of time. With the ballet’s central pas de deux, quiet and poignant, the next stage begins. There’s a struggle here—the man is moving on and the woman can’t accept it. She touches him repeatedly, and each time he covers her hand with his; then she pulls her hand away and tries again. “It’s like he’s breaking, and he’s trying to convince her,” Welch says. The last movement, dominated by walking (symbolizing togetherness) and rocking motifs, is about aging dancers being left behind as class and ballet companies go on, eternal.

At times throughout the ballet, the dancers race across the stage and disappear into the wings, a device prompted in part by Welch’s memory of when he first came to the United States from Australia and was impressed by how much floor space the dancers covered. It’s a characteristic of American-style dancing, he says, and “it’s thrilling to see.” The other impetus behind this sprinting is the idea that the ballet takes place in a universe we see only part of. “So when [the dancers] shoot across the stage, they’re just doing a pas de deux on another stage.” Welch laughs and points to an unseen horizon. “Over there!”

This is all subtext, however. What’s on the surface are steps that delve deeply into the intricacies of five musical movements from two early-1700s violin concertos, the only ones by Johann Sebastian Bach that have survived their own passage of time. Welch loves the fact that of all the music chosen for Unbound, much of it popular or electronic, the Bach stands out.

For Welch, illuminating the music is a big part of the joy of choreographing. “That wonderful [George] Balanchine quote about making music come alive is very much what I think we are all trying to do [as choreographers],” he says. Bach has many layers that listeners might not notice at first, and “the deeper you get into it, the richer it is.” Through movement, Welch points out melodies, rhythms, accents, undertones that delight him or reveal the music’s subtext. “Great choreographers like [Jiří] Kylián and Balanchine, those musical people, they always teach me something about music,” he says. “You go home and re-listen to it and go, “Wow, that is how that’s phrased.”

Stanton Welch and SF Ballet rehearsing his Bespoke // © Erik Tomasson


It’s phrasing, but it’s also texture, from the staccato ticking of the arms to an elastic push through flexed wrists, counterpointed by the flick of a pointed foot. In rehearsals, Welch tells the dancers working on a lift to “hold back so there’s more of an explosion at the top.” An arm motif that arcs overhead in a swimming motion looks courtly when done with one arm; with two, it’s suddenly contemporary. Welch’s “hands of a clock” motif came from wanting to “start with this sort of cross shape,” he says, crossing his arms to demonstrate. “That was geometry, because I find that my first reaction to Bach, often, is that it’s very metered and mathematical.” Other embellishments are very human: a dancer runs her brow along her forearm; a hand rebounds off a chest or circles gracefully; a man “conducts” his partner’s turns.

There’s danger in being too literal with music, both in mimicking its structure and illustrating phrases and rhythms, and Welch is acutely aware of this. In the first movement, where three evenly paced rising chords repeat, “the temptation is to repeat [steps], because it is what’s happening [musically],” he says. “So I try to do it differently—to do the repeat and have all the motifs and all the things I wanted to say the first time, but make it interesting and fresh.” For example, he might reverse a step or sequence, or have the dancers do it facing a different way.

The freshness of Welch’s neoclassical movement, says Helgi Tomasson, SF Ballet’s artistic director and principal choreographer, comes from “the way the dancers move today; maybe the dancers he was working with brought that out. Time changes all of us. We are influenced by what we see, how society is.”

Step into the studio while Welch is at work and you’ll notice how often he laughs, how delighted he seems to be there. The process of creating is what he enjoys most, he says; it’s more rewarding than a premiere. “When they’re in it and you’re in it, you can go for five, six hours and not wear out, and that’s fun,” he says. He found inspiration in his dancers, most of whom were new to him. Coming in with no preconceived ideas about which dancer would do what “was really liberating,” he says.

Welch calls these dancers “fantastically musical,” a trait he thinks is one of the Company’s strengths. “[Principal Dancer] Frances [Chung] is a great model of that—she could do the same step 50 times and just change it by accent, and that’s great dancing, and clever. I wanted to make that [musicality] part of the work because I think that’s San Francisco.”

TREY MCINTYRE’S YOUR FLESH SHALL BE A GREAT POEM

Trey McIntyre came to San Francisco Ballet knowing he would make a piece about his grandfather. What he didn’t know was how that idea would play out choreographically—but he has always trusted his subconscious during the creative process. And when he finished his ballet, he saw that it was about loss and remembrance, pain and happiness—a mind-meld of sorts between grandson and grandfather in a family from the American Great Plains.

This ballet is McIntyre’s second for the Company, a return visit prompted in part by his delightful Presentce, made for last year’s Gala. The idea for this ballet began percolating when McIntyre’s father died a few years ago and his sister began sorting through old family photographs. “Our family heritage is really interesting to me,” McIntyre says. “We’re just so American—there’s this can-do spirit of fighting from poverty through education to create a life for yourself. That’s my family’s story.” Among the photos his sister found was a sepia-toned portrait of his grandfather in a football uniform—high-waisted trousers and heavy boots—taken during the 1920s. McIntyre, a photographer and filmmaker as well as a dancemaker, was intrigued. “My grandfather was a giant like me. I’m six-foot-six and he was six-foot-three, but that was probably six-six for the 1920s,” he says, laughing. “Even though I never knew him, I always envisioned some life perspective that he and I might have shared.” 

Trey McIntyre and SF Ballet rehearsing his Your Flesh Shall Be A Great Poem // © Erik Tomasson


That’s the idea he brought with him to SF Ballet. Then came the solar eclipse, coinciding with the first day of rehearsals on August 21, and he thought there was something auspicious about that. “How I pictured it,” he says, “was the sun and the moon lining up, creating this portal through time—that I had this chance to be with my grandfather, that I had this chance to get to know him, whether through intuiting that or projecting myself onto his life. If you’re thinking of a planetary cycle or a life cycle of just this period of time, maybe I get to be with him in the piece.”

The portal idea led to the ballet’s structure of two solos, both danced by the same man, bookending the central “eclipse” section, which could be read as vignettes from his life. The solo man is McIntyre’s grandfather, but so are all the men, conceivably; all of them wear pants based on that 1920s football outfit. What made the eclipse particularly potent for McIntyre is that recently he has begun to think that “all time is happening at once,” he says. “I always thought that was kind of woo-woo. But I thought of the piece in that way—[my grandfather’s] lifetime is happening all at once. It’s like looking through photographs—I can be with this one for a little bit, and this for a little bit, and I think of all of them as figments of his life experience.”

Two aspects of his grandfather’s life give the ballet its emotional tone—death and dementia. “There is a general picture I paint because he was an undertaker,” McIntyre says. “There’s a morbidity to living in a funeral home, in a way that resonates with me. I’m interested in the darkness of experience; I’m interested in the contrast of light and dark.” Images of death permeate the ballet, in lingering leave-takings, loving touches tinged by sadness. And at the end of a duet for two men, which McIntyre says is driven by “this notion of loving someone deeply with the knowledge of their impending death,” one of the dancers is carried out as if by pallbearers. “It is both literal and also the existential knowledge that everyone is dying.” Even some of the images he uses to describe his movement evoke death: “Think of a mushroom cloud,” he tells the dancers about arms that open to the side, curving downward in a gentle arc.

The ballet’s ending, though, comes from a specific memory. McIntyre’s grandfather had severe dementia late in life, “and I remember one story of him walking around the neighborhood in his underwear,” the choreographer says. As a child, he thought the story was strange and funny; later it seemed frightening. “But what I liked about it was thinking about life as reincarnation—going through life [from childhood], and in our old age returning to a childlike state,” he says. “Dementia underlines that even more because you lose the experience that you had. And so I wanted, especially in the final solo, to have it be my grandfather wandering around in his underwear and experiencing life in reverse.”

These serious themes are both supported and belied by the music, songs by Chris Garneau from his album El Radio. Some of the rhythms are bouncy, the melodies catchy; others lament, “We left too soon,” or “It drags me down.” “I wanted something that had some quietness to it,” says McIntyre. “I like how varied and interesting the instrumentation is; it isn’t just a bunch of ballads.” With these songs as a soundtrack, he fills the ballet with buoyancy, playfulness, charm—yet somehow manages to give everything an undertone of loss. “I think happiness, real soul happiness, is something that you earn, and that you earn it by experiencing your life,” he says. “You learn happiness because you have it in contrast to the sorrow that you’ve had. I like having those elements all in play at once.”

Caption: Lonnie Weeks rehearsing McIntyre’s Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem // © Erik Tomasson


Creating minutely nuanced movement, McIntyre makes physical the delight and pain of remembering someone we’ve loved. The movement’s profundity may come in part from his interest in acting techniques. Paraphrasing a tenet of Sanford Meisner technique, he says, “The goal of acting is to have real experiences in imaginary circumstances. And so for me it’s ideal if the dancers can get to that unconscious place where they’re literally having that feeling in that moment. And as long as they’re having that feeling, every choice they make is correct.” These choices, of course, occur within the movement McIntyre creates, a personal style filled with surprises and contrasts that he says comes “from being awkward and being a giant. I’ve had to organize this—” he slaps his torso—“in a different way.” Always, though, he says he wants to use his “inheritance of classical technique, in terms of aesthetic, to be an effective communicator. But it’s more about the experience being created onstage. That’s paramount.”

Being a filmmaker has influenced McIntyre’s approach to transitions, and it has slowed him down. “There are probably more moments of quiet in this piece, and stillness, because of making film,” he says. He doesn’t mean pauses or inaction; the stillness is built into the steps. “Try not to use momentum to get to the next move,” he tells the dancers. “Try to find a moment of stillness in it.”  It’s an approach that accommodates introspection. McIntyre, imagining looking back at life after death, says, “It would be pure empathy for every moment in your life.” That’s how he imagines his grandfather would see this ballet. “You realize that life is just this big, amazing experience and that the pain was just as valuable as the joy.”

ANNABELLE LOPEZ OCHOA’S GUERNICA

When Guernica, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s first work for San Francisco Ballet, dominates the stage, it’s easy to see that the choreographer found inspiration in the art of Picasso. In studying the brilliant Cubist painter’s life and work, Lopez Ochoa discovered an umbrella theme for her ballet that encompasses bullfighting, painting, flamenco dance, and love. 

In creating Guernica, Colombian-Belgian choreographer Lopez Ochoa brings the imagination that led Helgi Tomasson, artistic director and principal choreographer, to invite her to choreograph for the Unbound festival. After watching rehearsals of Guernica, Tomasson was struck by the subject matter, which he calls “fascinating.” Fascinating, yes, and dramatic and fierce, fueled by decidedly unromantic sexuality, plus rage, conflict, and domination. Bullfighting—a symbol of Spain—is a central idea, depicted by the bullhorns the four principal dancers wear and the circle the other dancers form around them. The bull symbolizes violence and power, aggressor and victim—all of which, in a sense, tie into the choreographer’s anti-war interpretation of Picasso’s Guernica (1937). That painting, mural-sized and virtually black and white, is one of two Cubist artworks that inspired Lopez Ochoa as she choreographed.

At first she had thought that only the men would wear the bullhorns, but having the principal women wear them too makes them equal, “and then it’s a fight between the sexes,” she says. Two of Picasso’s lovers provided inspiration as well: Marie-Thérèse Walter (a role created on Soloist Julia Rowe), who bore him a child and whose portrait, Marie-Thérèse, Face and Profile (1931), sparked Lopez Ochoa’s imagination; and photographer Dora Maar (created on Principal Dancer Dores André), who documented the creation of Picasso’s Guernica. “I wanted the sensuality between the man and the woman,” Lopez Ochoa says, because of the prevalent eroticism she sees in Picasso’s work.

Julia Rowe and Myles Thatcher rehearsing Lopez Ochoa's Guernica // © Erik Tomasson


When Lopez Ochoa creates a ballet, she’s attempting to answer a question. For this ballet, it’s “how do you put Cubism into movement? What does it mean? What does my brain do when it sees a Cubist painting of a face that’s dislocated?” she says. She had a second question too: could she create an atmosphere that suggests Picasso? By putting the bull, a powerful and erotic symbol, into the ballet, she hopes to show us “the spirit of Picasso.”

In trying to create a Cubist effect, Lopez Ochoa creates transient tableaux, brief static moments she calls paintings, in which she layers the dancers into poses “so that my brain sees four heads and only two legs,” she says. The dancers move like pieces of a shattered painting, recognizable one moment, unintelligible the next. She’s aiming for fragmentation—of the body, of formations. Cubism captivates Lopez Ochoa because of how the brain sees and re-sees, trying to make sense of shapes that can be interpreted in multiple ways. To illustrate that, in working on a turning lift, she slows down the lift while keeping the speed of the rotation, so that “we see something different with each turn,” she says. In a tableau with the four principals, she tells each man to sweep his arm upward as his partner arches, “as if it’s her arm.” Even thinking of the four principal dancers as multiple figures is like Cubism, in a way—four embodiments of a person, sometimes separate, sometimes in pairs or a foursome.

Enhancing the Cubist effect are the costumes, printed with images that can be seen one way when viewed singly or in pairs, for example, and in quite another way when the dancers are in groups. This changeable quality of the costume design mimics the multiplicity of Cubism—the eye takes in an image and the brain makes sense of it, only to discover that with a shift of focus, what’s perceived is something new, and open to a different interpretation.

A rich array of source material fuels Lopez Ochoa’s movement. Flamenco is visible in the arms, held behind the body in a sizzling arc; in the exuberant, staccato stomping of zapateado-like bourrées (tiny steps on pointe); and in the cupped hands with fingers splayed. The hands are an exaggerated version of flamenco styling, and they’re also Lopez Ochoa’s signature. She trained in flamenco for seven years, but it wasn’t until she saw the images from a 2012 photo shoot that she realized the way she used her double-jointed hands, in an extreme flamenco-esque style, was “her.” “And I was like, ‘If this is me, I have to put me in my pieces,’ ” she says. “Because as an artist you’re always trying to develop your own unique voice, and for that you need to stay very, very close to yourself. And I’m very expressive with my hands.”

Annabelle Lopez Ochoa rehearsing her Guernica // © Erik Tomasson


Elsewhere, pointing index fingers symbolize bullfighting, either the bull’s horns or the arrows that kill the animals in the end. The energy of violence and attack that infuses most of the movement is inspired by the painting Guernica, Picasso’s expression of rage and sorrow at the 1937 target-practice bombing of the Basque town of Guernica, which killed many women and children. “I need violence in your eyes,” Lopez Ochoa tells the dancers. “All your frustration, put it in.” In a mini-duet, the principal women move in a tight circle, stalking each other. “Can we have a catfight?” the choreographer says. In one pas de deux, a gesture that might be an embrace transforms into a strangle; what started as a tender cupping of a woman’s face in the crook of her partner’s arm becomes agonized when Lopez Ochoa adds a silent scream. A recurring step in which a woman drops and is caught with legs folded beneath her, knees open, rocking side to side, captures the emotion of the painting—a mother’s grief.

For music, Lopez Ochoa chose pieces by Raime and Michel Banabila that underscore the ballet’s violence and eroticism. An ominous feeling pervades some sections, pulsing and surging relentlessly; elsewhere the music is metallic and repetitive, or muted and jazzy. The ballet ends with an elegiac piano piece by Charles-Valentin Alkan—the first time the violence dissipates. Though the music seems tailor-made for what’s unfolding onstage, there’s no story arc. Instead of giving us characters who change over time, Lopez Ochoa gives us ideas and images. “As a choreographer,” she says, “I’m looking at ‘What are we saying with this? What is the intention, energetically, of that moment?’” Whatever she shows us onstage, it’s part of herself, a physical expression of what she feels when she looks at Picasso’s art.